Heather Christo is a chef, blogger, author, and mama to two beautiful daughters who were diagnosed with severe food allergies in 2014 (along with Heather as well.)
After receiving their diagnosis, Heather wasn’t going to complain and fret about what they could no longer have. She decided to take matters into her own hands to pave the way for those seeking an allergen-free lifestyle by creating healthy and delicious recipes.
Her new cook book, Pure Delicious, showcases 150 delectable recipes free from gluten, dairy, egg, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish and cane sugar.
Pure Delicious also details Heather and her family’s journey to their current allergen-free lifestyle—from the testing process, to trips to the ER, from stumped doctors to gradually cutting foods and ingredients out of their daily lives, and now— their new normal.
We got to chat with Heather about her new book, time-saving tips in the kitchen, and what it’s like to be a mother of children with food allergies.
A scary trip to the ER for your daughter followed by allergy testing led you to decide to live a completely allergen-free lifestyle. How did you initially wrap your head around going allergen-free?
Heather Christo: Uhhh, in the fetal position with a pillow over my head! (I’m mostly kidding.) For me it was not even a question of whether or not we would do it, or how soon we would do it, or whether we would all participate.
Because I knew it was the best possible path for the health of my children, the only question in my mind was “what’s the process of getting to that end result of great health?”
Once I got over the initial pangs of fear and panic, I got really serious about making a game plan. I work best with a systematic plan and a check-list, so that is how I approached the challenges: taking each one at a time, and going day by day and then week by week.
What was the process like—removing certain foods and ingredients from your body (and kids bodies) as well as from your pantry?
Heather Christo: Eye opening! I bet anyone would be surprised once they started pulling everything out and reading labels.
I had thought that we were eating pretty well as a family until I went through this process.
It wasn’t just that we had a house full of allergen filled foods—it was the amount of processed foods that freaked me out! Packaged snacks and convenience foods (even the “organic,” “healthy” snacks) are processed and full of fillers and I just had not realized how many of them we were eating on a daily basis. We are far more whole foods oriented than before.
How old were your children at the time, and how did they take to this switch?
Heather Christo: They were 5 and 3 when we started tracking and journaling, but just had turned 6 and 4 when we got our test results and went cold turkey, completely overhauling our lives. They reacted as any young children who don’t want to be denied—they were upset.
There was crying and tantrums and begging and guilt trips and it was hard—but only until I found them substitutes for the foods they loved.
Then it got much easier (hopefully my recipes make that much easier for other mothers!) Occasionally we still have a rough moment, especially with youngest who is now 6—but that is being human and we just try to roll with the punches and talk her through it.
A lot of mothers deal with the fear that their child might eat something that they are allergic to by accident. How do you deal with those anxieties, especially at social gatherings?
Heather Christo: I am really lucky in that neither of my children are anaphylactic, so that takes the life and death element out of the equation. However, I still worry.
Initially I had tremendous anxiety and did a bit of hovering, but we came up with better (and more productive!) options that let my children have some flexibility.
I made laminated cards for them and caretakers to carry with the allergies. They also wore medical ID bracelets with their allergies in case any misguided adults were not paying attention or had their own ideas about what my children should be eating. It didn’t take long before my children could be trusted on their own and regular caretakers, teachers, family and friends all knew the drill.
Going completely allergen-free for the whole family can sound intimidating to some. Why would you suggest this lifestyle?
Heather Christo: Without question, despite the challenges of the transition, it is the best thing I have ever done for my family. Health is the foundation for everything good in life.
When you eliminate the stress of physical sickness, or chronic mediocre health, you free up so much time and energy to focus on your life.
Our new diet has also affected moods and learning styles—everything is better because of the way we eat. It may have been difficult when the kids are young, but I am happy I can give them the foundation for a full life filled with nutritious, beneficial eating and the tools for achieving great long term health.
Pure Delicious is a beautiful book, filled with amazing recipes. But it is also an extremely helpful guidebook for those who are looking to learn more about what our bodies can be allergic to, how to substitute safe ingredients, and all the specifics that go along with allergies. Why was it important to you to write Pure Delicious as a guidebook filled with recipes, instead of just a book of recipes?
Heather Christo: When I went through this process I didn’t feel that I had anywhere to turn for answers, and I know many other people who felt that way. It took me a year to piecemeal together information from a ton of different sources which was incredibly frustrating. I also couldn’t find any recipes that addressed all of our needs, so I had to make them up myself.
I knew we had to use our experiences to make this easier for other families and individuals going through similar situations.
I really wanted to take all of that research and all of that (very difficult!) recipe developing and create a one-stop resource for food allergies and sensitivities.
Do your daughters like to cook with you? How do you include them in the cooking process?
Heather Christo: They love it. Because of my job, they have always been in the kitchen with me. I find that my older daughter really likes the technical part of it (measuring, mixing, stirring) and then my youngest likes to help me “style” the food and take pictures. They both like to taste test!
I love to have them participate in making a meal when we can do that.
They are both obsessed with chopping food up (even if it’s still just with a butter knife!) and dumping ingredients in hot pans—basically the more dangerous the better! But at the end of the day I like that they will know how to cook and that they see what goes into the dishes that they like best and are eating on a daily basis.
Every mama is a busy mama. How do you save time in the kitchen? Any meal-planning or grocery shopping tips?
Heather Christo: I do try to plan out at least a few days worth of meals, which saves time grocery shopping.
I also am big on making double batches of pretty much everything to save time.
I will freeze the extra meatballs and sauce and in the time it takes to boil some pasta, you can heat up the sauce and meatballs. Or you can make a huge pot of soup or chili stretch for days. Or I will bake two loaves of banana bread and put one in the freezer, or freeze extra cookies in individual baggies for school lunches.
What are your pantry staples?
Heather Christo: Diamond Kosher salt, Bobs Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Flour, Organic Beet Sugar, Organic Rolled Gluten Free Oats, Homemade Muffin Mix, Homemade Pancake and Waffle Mix, Coconut Oil, Olive Oil, Chia Seeds.
What advice or words of wisdom do you have for mamas who want to go allergen-free?
Heather Christo: Try to go into it with a great, positive attitude!
Attitude is highly contagious, and will help set the tone for the process as well as how those around you react to you or your family making such big changes.
If you are cool with it, and seem content in your choices for your family, everyone will follow suit, showing their support.